When you walk into the Halifax Seaport Market you’re greeted by all sorts of delicious smells of fresh food being prepared. And depending on what entrance you come in, one of the first things you might smell are the fresh dumplings and noodle dishes at Chenpapa.
The Chen family has been with the market for the past 12 years but has been serving up freshly prepared dishes in Halifax for over 35 years.
“I’m happy cooking, I enjoy that,” says Pi Yeng Chen, who owns the food establishment with her husband Yi Chiao Chen.
The couple first immigrated to Canada from Taiwan in 1976, settling down in Halifax with the intention of getting into the import and export business, but Chen says they quickly found out that would be better suited for a larger city like Montreal or Toronto.
So she and her husband had to make a decision.
“I say, I like Halifax,” she recalls.
“I say if we have the chance (to stay), I don’t mind working hard, we can do it together.”
So the couple decided to start a business together, first testing the waters with a convenience store. But after being robbed multiple times over the course of a year, they decided they wanted something where they both felt safer working. It was then that they were encouraged to open a restaurant — even though neither had any prior experience.
“I never cook in Taiwan,” said Chen, but she decided she could learn. She says it wasn’t hard, it just took some time.
“Now I have to do everything here, it’s a big change.”
She adds that time has flown and now they’ve been at it for over 35 years.
“We’re happy,” said Chen. “My husband, he always joking with the customers.”
And it’s the customers who’ve kept them going over the years. Chen says working at the market has felt like being welcomed into a big extended family. She recalls over the years seeing getting to see customers grow up.
“They bring their boyfriend or girlfriend and then all of a sudden there’s a baby,” says Chen with a smile.
While serving food may not have been the life they first planned when coming to Canada, it’s a life that’s served them well.
“Not rich, but we’re happy,” said Chen.
Working at the market is still a labour of love, but the couple has now decided to close up shop. The COVID-19 pandemic has hit the market especially hard. Without the usual foot traffic brought in by the cruise ships, and various restrictions in place, it’s been a tough year, and in March there will be a shift in how and where the seaport market operates. With all that in mind, Chen says it made sense to say goodbye.
“We’ll retire, be with family. It’s a very good time for us.”
Feb. 5 and 6 will be the final weekend for the couple, who say they’ve already had an overwhelming response when word got out they were shutting down.
Over the weekend there was a steady line in front of their venue, with regulars turning up to wish them well and get a last taste of their food.
Chen says she’s so thankful to everyone who’s supported them over the years, and says Nova Scotians have truly made them feel welcome, making them so grateful that they made that decision to stay here all those years ago.
And as her family says goodbye to the market, Chen hopes their own customers will keep supporting the other local vendors. She says many small businesses are struggling right now, including the many friends she’s made at the market over the years, and asks that people do what they can to keep supporting local.
“Just help them if you can,” said Chen.